The Latest Threat to Industrial Agriculture: The Local Foods Movement?

Something really weird has been happening: seemingly intelligent columnists have been warning of the terrible threat posed by the local foods movement. Here's a recent warning from Jay Rayner, writing in the U.K.'s Guardian: "Its clear to me that we risk replacing a culture of a cheap and plentiful present with one of hyper-expense and scarcity in just a few years' time." His argument, which is pretty hard to follow, is that because British consumers are used to perfect-looking cheap food, and because more and more of it is being imported, and because small farmers can't make a living, the only option to prevent the coming "food security storm" is to "embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming." Local sustainable foods advocates threaten this embrace, and therefore threaten the security of the British food system. Food riots and hunger may soon be the result.

Then there is this one from Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times, attacking the local foods movement as threatening to "devolve into another one of those self-indulgent--and self-defeating--do-gooder dogmas." (I would love to see what else he puts in that category). Budiansky's hostility is directed specifically at those who criticize energy use in industrial farming and food transport, which he believes is "one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being." Is he serious?

There have been a slew of these attacks on the local foods movement lately, even including an entire book. I'm not going to write about why these critiques are mostly wrongheaded, involve misleading and selective use of statistics, and reach conclusions not supported by the complex reality out there. Tom Philpott (links to his responses here, and here) at Grist has responded thoughtfully (particularly to Budiansky), and has posted replies from various food writers, activists, and thinkers--many of them very good.

What I want to ask is this: Why do industrial farming advocates find the local foods movement so threatening? Given the domination of industrial agriculture over so much of the food system, what are pro-industrial farming folks so afraid of?

I don't know for sure. But The USDA recently proposed rules that would rein in monopolistic practices in the meatpacking industry. And Erik Eckholm reported in the New York Times in August that farmers are being required to limit confinement of animals in factory farms in a number of states, including California, Ohio, and Michigan. The FDA is discussing restricting routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed to slow the rise of deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For now, it appears their guidelines will by voluntary.

There are ongoing discussions about changing the farm subsidy system when the farm bill comes up for reauthorization in 2012, a system that primarily supports the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice on very large farms.

Maybe industrial farming advocates realize that the dominance of industrial food is not solely due to the efficiencies of growing bigger and bigger, but relies heavily on government subsidies that many are beginning to question. According to Anna Lappe, "The reality of our food system is that it has never been ...the result of this mythological 'comparative advantage' in a free market....What we grow and where we grow it is the predictable result of massive public subsidies to the largest industrial producers." Lappe cites an Environmental Working Group analysis that shows industrial corn growers received 73.8 billion dollars from in government subsidies from 1995 to 2009. What would happen to these very large producers if the subsidy system was reformed?

Are the proposed and pending reforms partially caused by the local foods movement? Maybe, and maybe not. But these critics seem afraid that the local foods movement is growing into something powerful--which makes me wonder: are the ideas that it is good to have a choice about where your food comes from, and it is safer to have a diverse and less-centralized food system, spreading? Are the economic, social, environmental, security, and climate-related arguments for rebuilding durable local and regional food systems being heard?

If so, isn't that cool?!